Patrick Reusse
See more of the story

St. Thomas still was struggling through the closing minutes of the first half on Saturday when a final score from the Eastern Time Zone reached O'Shaughnessy Stadium.

That was Drake 13, Butler 9, meaning the visitors from Drake had completed an 8-0 run through the Pioneer Football League and there would be no co-championship for St. Thomas.

The Tommies joined this widespread non-scholarship FCS league in 2021 and went a surprising 6-2 in conference games to finish in a tie for third place.

St. Thomas had an 8-0 run to the title in 2022, before the 13-game winning streak was stopped with Drake's 52-21 blitz in Des Moines on Oct. 14.

Tommies coach Glenn Caruso still was lamenting late last week that the lopsided defeat was based on "poor preparation and coaching" that week from him.

OK, but overall — a gritty effort from these Tommies, loaded with injuries, to finish 7-1 in the league and 8-3 overall.

"Basically, we had four walk-off wins," Caruso said. "Teams can play a 162-game baseball season and not have four walk-offs, but we had four them.

"We beat San Diego in overtime last week on [Hope] Adebayo's run. We beat Dayton when Johnson Fallah broke up a slant in the end zone. We beat Butler when Luke Herzog broke up a pass that would've been a winning touchdown. And, we beat Morehead [State] when Tak Tateoka threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Wildermuth with no time left."

By those standards, what became a 16-10 victory over Valparaiso was almost a laugher. All it took was a four-and-out from the defense in the final two minutes, as Valpo was starting from its 10.

This was the 3lst consecutive victory on the home field for St. Thomas — a streak dating to a 34-31 loss to Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the D-III quarterfinals on Dec. 3, 2016.

That was a hellacious contest, and not about to be soon repeated on this turf for playoff drama. First, Tommies teams can't participate in the postseason for two more seasons, and second, the PFL champion — with its non-scholarship status — always goes on the road as big underdogs vs. a high seed to open the FCS tournament.

"This league is much more unpredictable, top to bottom, than where we came [MIAC]," Caruso said. "Mark Dienhart, a true Tommie fan … he used to tell me you can't be beating those bottom teams in the MIAC by 50, 60 points.

"Now he tells me, 'You need a better home slate. People don't know these teams.' "

1. Next season will include Northern Iowa in Game 3, and 2. Tommies people might as well learn, because they aren't going anywhere else for a conference.

Phil Esten is the athletic director and led the Tommies' move into Division I. On Saturday, an hour before kickoff, he was asked: "Is the Pioneer where your football program belongs?"

Esten's prompt answer was: "I think so. Institutional alignment, which is important here, is outstanding. And with the slightly higher travel expenses due to having teams on both coasts, the non-scholarship element makes up for that."

Forget the preposterous idea St. Thomas should work toward playing with the FCS machines — South Dakota State, North Dakota State, etc. — in the Missouri Valley.

It's not happening. Esten didn't offer a number, but others have estimated the cost for St. Thomas to play scholarship football in that league would increase by $6 million annually.

And that doesn't count what would have to be done to O'Shaughnessy to make it adequate for the MVFC.

"We've made some improvements here, and it fits fine with the Pioneer," Esten said. "We're satisfied where we are, and grateful to Glenn, his coaches and the athletes for making it such a successful transition to this higher level."

The move to D-I paid a notable dividend in September when St. Thomas went to Harvard to play the Crimson. The Tommies at grand old Harvard — first selected as national football champions in 1874.

A mistake-ridden first half led to a 45-13 defeat, but it could have been 7-0 for the Tommies right away, if quarterback Amari Powell hadn't misfired on a double-lateral trick play that had the tight end open by yards at the goal line.

Saturday, Powell hit tight end Patrick Wagner on 30-yard trick play to make it 10-0 in the second quarter.

"Same play as Harvard," Caruso said. "Better result."

The results in the Pioneer have been excellent — 21-3 in three seasons — and this will be home for Tommies football for the foreseeable future.

End of debate.